Well, it seems to have happened again. I lost my writing momentum. This is not the first time this has happened, as you’re well aware if you’ve spent any time sniffing around the blog. Despite being unemployed and having neither a wife nor a family to take care of, I have a very busy life, and sometimes I’m just not sure how much of it—good or bad—I want to share with the Internets.
I do know that a good way to get the momentum going again is just to start typing and see what happens. Sometimes that works, and sometimes it doesn’t. Worth mentioning is the fact that I seem to have developed a pinched nerve near my right shoulder blade, which makes my index finger numb and causes occasional fits of shooting pain through my arm. This makes things like driving a car, playing musical instruments, and using a computer (in other words, most of the things I do with my life) much less fun than they normally are.
I was housesitting for almost two weeks for FrenchSinger and his wife, keeping their three cats company while they were on vacation in Canada. In addition to the cats, they have a good-sized television, and all the major movie channels, and a Netflix subscription, which meant that this was the primary activity for the majority of my time at their house:
It’s not exactly the greatest picture in the history of pictures, so if you can’t quite make out the details, it’s me lying on my side on the sofa, with two of the cats perched on my leg. A couple of times, I could swear that vegetable matter was beginning to form between my other leg and the sofa, as I watched marathons of shows like Kitchen Nightmares and Top Gear.
I also got my passport, at long last. A couple of my friends who live elsewhere in the world have been bugging me to get one for years now, but the hassle and expense (years of underemployment are taking their toll) of ordering my ‘real’ birth certificate as well held up the process a bit. I had the same problem that Barack Obama did, with an unofficial copy, which used to be perfectly acceptable until the world went crazy. No more, however, since my shiny new passport is here in my hot little hand. Well, not in my hand right now, but you know what I’m saying.
The brochure that came with it says on the front, “With your U.S. Passport, the world is yours!” So it would seem. Now all I have to do is use the thing, as much as possible. The first place will be beautiful Vancouver, B.C., for a gig in a few weeks. The most likely places after that are Switzerland and France, although who knows; I may get a random jonesing for Iceland or Japan or somewhere like that. I’ll keep you posted.
I’ll leave you with what is currently my favorite piece of music. I came across it in a documentary film, and looked it up in the credits, and have been obsessed with it ever since. It’s “Nimrod”, from the Enigma Variations, by English composer Edward Elgar. It’s absolutely stunning, and well worth the four minutes it will take you to watch this video of the excellent (and very stern-looking) Daniel Barenboim conducting.
There, see? I told you. Beautiful, noble and epic.
Incidentally, I’m still taking submissions from guest bloggers. I had three or four people say they were interested, but I suspect that my own lack of blogging momentum was contagious to them, and the interest seems to have temporarily waned. So come on. Let’s all ‘fire up’, as they say. Actually, I’m not sure who says that, but let’s do it anyway.
When I left you hanging at the edge of the cliff with Vinnie’s story, I didn’t realize that it would take A MONTH AND A HALF to get back to the story. Huge apologies for that.
When we left off, Vinnie had disbanded his Invasion band (truth be told, the singer and bassist quit and formed the band Slaughter, which was much more successful, and still exists today), and the so-called ‘grunge’ of Seattle made 80′s metal obsolete. The guys from Kiss are pretty tight-lipped about their dealings with Vinnie, but Gene Simmons famously called him “the most self-destructive person I’ve ever met.” Vinnie also apparently reneged on contracts with Kiss, or failed to sign them completely, and even ended up suing the band—twice!—for songwriting royalties he felt he was owed. Apparently the courts didn’t agree, since he lost both of the lawsuits.
In the late 80′s, he also dabbled in songwriting for other people, including—somewhat surprisingly—The Bangles.
Color me surprised, then, when in 1992, Vinnie got called to write songs with Kiss again for their Revenge record. Most people didn’t see that one coming, but apparently he swore up and down to Gene and Paul that he was sorry for all the shenanigans he’d pulled, and that he wanted to make a fresh start with the group. They agreed, but it soon became obvious that Vinnie was still Vinnie, and that it wasn’t going to work out.
Vinnie has spent the intervening years as a recluse, turning up at occasional Kiss conventions, and even awkwardly sitting in with a tribute band in Sweden called Kiss This. Watching Vinnie fake his way through these songs is hilarious and priceless, since he clearly doesn’t know them. The guitar solos you hear in the video aren’t played by Vinnie, they’re played by the band’s usual guitarist. I suspect that Vinnie’s guitar isn’t even plugged in. See what you think.
These days, Vinnie seems to have become obsessed with embellishing his reputation. In 2011, he was offering an online chat session on his web site for the admission price of five hundred dollars. He sells his own brand of V-shaped guitars for the astronomical price of nine thousand dollars, unless you want the gold-plated one, which boosts the price to well over twelve thousand dollars. Good luck with that, Vinnie. And his questionable reputation still lives on. The guy who wrote the following piece (in 2011!) is a guitar maker who used to do some work for Vinnie, and who also currently sells his own V-shaped guitars.
“In my past experiences with Vinnie I am aware of certain issues that will likely trainwreck this instrument. If you want details contact the Jackson Custom Shop, they will tell you why they discontinued the original model. In the case of many multitalented individuals there are certain eccentricities that cause them to become their own worst enemies. I am and always will be a fan of Vinnie’s work but working with Vinnie was very unproductive for us.”
Six months before the online chat thing happened, however, he had a bit of a kerfuffle with his wife, allegedly punching her in the face and dragging her through broken glass, before she drove herself to the police station in Nashville, where the couple live today. Also, the police found a bunch of dead dogs, who had apparently been killed by their ‘aggressive’ dog, on their property. Here’s the news story from the incident.
The picture I posted at the end of my previous blog entry was his mug shot from that night.
It would be unacceptable not to let Vinnie speak for himself, regarding all the things I’ve posted here so far. I came across this rebuttal on another web site:
“There is much to say to all of you but the most important thing for me to let you know is that what you have been reading is not true. Irresponsible reporting and fabrication of events that never happened destroys people’s lives, and that is exactly what has happened.
“It’s very unfortunate we live in times where you’re guilty even if you’re innocent, but it’s the way of the world now. It’s also sad to me that not only do the media get away with publishing unsubstantiated sensationalized reports that are then taken as ‘the truth’, but people now routinely hide behind their computers and usernames to intentionally inflict enormous damage without consequence, all for their own amusement. What they don’t know is the pain they cause will always be greater than their fabrication or exaggeration.
“About my precious dogs: My dogs and cat have been, are, and will always be the most important thing in my whole life. I love them more than my words can say. I look at dogs and cats as ‘perfect little people’ with loving and unconditional hearts that I believe God gifted to us to help comfort us through our lives, which always seems to be filled with pain in one way or another.
“I have 20 dogs that were rescued since 1999 from unspeakable and horrible abuse. I never turned my back or said no if a dog or cat needed a loving home. Each one of them is spoiled rotten; great food, love, comfort, care and shelter. They never leave my side and sit with me when I watch videos or when I play my guitar, the sound of which seems to fascinate them.
“Out of my twenty dogs, half of them are big dogs and the others are small. Fencing was put up to separate the big dogs from the little ones who could roam without any problem. One day, without my knowing, some of the big dogs accidentally got loose somehow and killed three of my babies. When I found out, it was too late. I was shattered and just too devastated for words. I still am and always will be. I will never get over it and I will always live with a pain greater than that of anything I had ever known or ever will know. I wrapped them each in blankets and laid them to rest in ‘caskets’ where I made a cross and wrote the words to ‘Danny Boy’ on their casket.
“The weather had been pretty bad here for awhile and an excavator was planned to come the property to dig up the ground so I could give them a proper burial when this terrible thing happened.
“I only hope someday we’ll be together and I can watch them once again run in the meadows under the deep blue skies.
“As for the despicable reports regarding my beloved dogs, those who know me know I would never harm any animal as they are God’s most beautiful and innocent of creations. I’m a vegetarian because of my respect for all animals.
“For those of you who wrongfully accused and judged me based on these ‘stories, I understand because I would feel the same way if it was the truth. But it’s not the truth. So, to all who perpetuated these cruel and vicious lies, may the truth bring you to your senses so you can stop these terrible and unfounded accusations.
“About the domestic situation: As you must know, this is a private matter that I cannot comment on at this time. Please don’t believe everything you read. I would never hurt anyone – ever. What has been reported is an absolutely inaccurate depiction of the events that occurred that evening. When it’s time, the truth will be known.
“In all, God gave me a silver lining to this terrible time by putting a long-lost family back together through this tragedy and for that, it was worth what I am going through. Unfortunately, this ‘incident’ caused my loved ones, who suffered through another emotionally devastating experience, to suffer a new burden they didn’t need to bear. As much as they are hurting for me and from this, they’re still there for me. I am a lucky person.
“I’m an immensely private person and these events have caused me great pain and emotional anguish.
“I am requesting that you respect my privacy and that of my family during this difficult time and not engage in harmful useless gossip posted on blogs and forums.
“My music: It has been my greatest desire to put out my new music, including remixed/remastered tracks that I am very proud of which many of you seem to enjoy, but I have experienced setbacks that hindered and delayed my plans. I am hoping to work through it all and get back on track. I would appreciate it if you could please bear with me.
“About the Vinnie Vincent model guitar: My website is in the process of being constructed. Keep watching YouTube for the link to the site and for the video catalog. The Vinnie website will be a fun place to visit with everything Vinnie Vincent: music, photos, and the Vinnie Vincent guitar in all its glory.
After all this research and writing, I have to admit that feel bad for Vinnie. His rags-to-riches-and-back-to-rags story is a fairly tragic one, and I would hate to see him become just another rock and roll casualty, but I fear the worst. I learned to play guitar to many of the songs that he wrote, and his guitar playing is part of my musical DNA. I have both of his albums, and I still listen to them much more often than you might think I would. My intention with this two-part story was to provide a sort of tribute to Vinnie, but his story, compelling though it may be, is a troubling one. It seems to me that his woes are self-inflicted. He’s made some bad decisions, and burned some bridges that he shouldn’t have burned. That being said, I’m still a fan of his, somewhere deep down in my heart of hearts, but I’m also an adult and a professional musician in my own right—on a much smaller scale, admittedly—who’s had to deal with the slings and arrows of not-so-outrageous fortune in my own ways.
If these stories have compelled you to explore Vinnie’s musical career further, I recommend that you check out his iTunes page, as well as the Kiss albums Creatures of the Night (my personal favorite) and Lick It Up. And, as always, thank you for reading all of this.
We now return you to BFS&T’s regularly scheduled programming (whatever that is!), already in progress.
If you’ve spent any significant amount of time around this blog, you know that occasionally I get too busy to write, but then I rebound with a huge entry, often about either musicology or childhood. This entry manages to include both, which means—naturally—that it will be a very long entry. Don’t let that deter you, though; you also know by now that I would never steer you wrong or share things with you that I didn’t think were important or interesting enough to share.
I recently started reading Chuck Klosterman’s book Fargo Rock City, about heavy metal from the 1980′s, to which time has not been kind. He takes the position that while it may look a little strange from the outside, particularly with almost thirty years of hindsight, those who loved that music—including Chuck and myself—feel that it did a lot for us back then, but that it hasn’t received the respect that it deserves. The book is also autobiographical, about a disaffected kid growing up in a tiny town in the middle of nowhere, who connected deeply with a style of music that offered glimpses of a strange new world and a completely different lifestyle. I can definitely relate.
Klosterman’s obsessive knowledge of the bands has made me nostalgic for that music, and I’ve gone back recently and reconnected with some of the stuff I used to love. My personal favorites were Kiss, Dokken, Ratt, Triumph, Dio, and Ozzy Osbourne. I should admit that some of them have held up better over time than others have. The first cassette I bought was Shout at the Devil by Mötley Crüe (umlauts intentional) in 1983, and the last was All Systems Go by Vinnie Vincent in 1989. Much has been written about Mötley Crüe, but precious little has been written about Vinnie Vincent, whose story is extremely interesting, even if (and possibly especially if) you know absolutely nothing about either him or heavy metal.
Vinnie became an instant celebrity when he replaced Kiss’s original and longtime lead guitarist, but I think a little bit of context is in order. Kiss was in trouble in 1982. They had sold millions of records throughout the 1970′s, but times—as well as musical tastes—were changing. Kiss had also jumped the shark with a couple of strange (pronounced “crappy”) albums in a row; a disco one and their famous flop Music From “The Elder,” which is a bizarre cross between Pete Townshend, David Bowie, and a Broadway musical. It was seriously weird, and their fans didn’t know what to do with it, but they DID know not to buy it. The band needed to find their way back, and in doing so, a couple of painful changes were necessary.
The original drummer, Peter Criss, was the first to go. He had been suffering from the excesses of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle for quite some time, and was injured in a car crash which left him out of commission for a while. The band had to postpone or cancel much of their subsequent tour, and Peter’s drinking and drug use had become a problem, so he was fired on May 18, 1980. I had to look up that date, but you can understand why I might have overlooked that tidbit in the news of the day, because I was too busy paying attention to Mount St. Helens, which erupted early that morning and buried Yakima (the town in which I grew up, and the nearest big town in the path of the eruption) under an inch or two of ash. So we had bigger things to deal with than some drummer being fired in New York City.
But I digress.
Next to be handed his walking papers was the original guitarist, Ace Frehley. He, like Peter Criss, had spent many years drinking heavily, even going so far as to bring cases of Dom Perignon champagne with him when he was on tour. He was constantly drunk onstage and in interviews, and the other band members had had enough. Ace, like the public, was also frustrated with the musical direction the band had taken, and was tired of always being outvoted by the band’s leaders, Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons.
The firing of Ace Frehley was undoubtedly a great opportunity for any guitarist. Kiss knew they had to deliver the goods as they finished their next record, Creatures of the Night, and they spent months auditioning players. Ace was pictured on the cover of Creatures, but he only played on a couple of the songs. Rick Derringer (you may know him from this song) supposedly played on one, as well as the guitarist from Mister Mister (you may know them from this song), but Paul and Gene wanted someone who could write songs as well, and they gave the nod to Vincent Cusano, who had been a studio guitarist and songwriter kicking around the New York scene of the 1970′s. Gene Simmons rechristened him Vinnie Vincent, and his place in rock history was secured. He’s third from left in this picture:
Vinnie landed one of the biggest gigs in rock and roll. The album was the strongest Kiss had created in quite a few years (it remains my favorite of their albums), and it even spawned a couple of hits on the then-fledgling MTV. The band was back on top, with a great new drummer and a fiery lead guitarist. But Vinnie was a tough sell for the fans. Replacing an original band member is no easy task, and Vinnie never felt like a ‘true’ member of Kiss. Even his stage persona, the Ankh Warrior, didn’t quite rise to the mythological status of Gene’s Demon or Paul’s Star Child, and Vinnie seemed a bit amorphous or strange compared to them.
His playing, however, was stellar, and he also brought tremendous songwriting skills to the band. After the success of the Creatures album and tour, the band decided it was time for another big change, and decided to appear without their makeup for the first time. The album Lick It Up was a huge and instant success, thanks in no small part to Vinnie’s contributions. The band went on an extensive world tour and prepared for their next steps. Vinnie’s on the left in this picture:
But by this time—1984—the cracks were beginning to show. Vinnie didn’t fit in with the other guys, and they weren’t getting along very well. He also didn’t feel that he was being fairly compensated for his songwriting. The royalties for some of their biggest hits of the time went to Gene and Paul, who kept Vinnie and drummer Eric Carr on salary as ‘for hire’ sidemen, rather than full-fledged band members. This rubbed Vinnie the wrong way, because he felt he had contributed much more than the somewhat low status of a sideman would take into account. It was decided that he should leave the band. He sued Kiss for royalties, but was unsuccessful.
Still very much in the limelight, he took some time to write more songs and put together his own band, called the Vinnie Vincent Invasion, the intent of which was to be bigger-than-life in every way. I couldn’t wait to hear it. I eagerly awaited its arrival in the record store, and bought it before I’d ever heard a note of it. I’d been reading in the magazines like Circus and Hit Parader that he used a gigantic number of amps on stage, he dressed more flashily, and could shred like nobody else. The drummer played crazy fills, and the singer sang higher than anyone else. It was completely over the top. Here’s their biggest hit song, “Boyz Are Gonna Rock.”
I’m not gonna lie; this song is dumb. I thought so when the fifteen-year-old version of me first bought the tape, and I still think so today. The first time I saw the video, I probably thought—in my addled teenage way—something eloquent like, “What the fuck was that?” They all looked ridiculously feminine, even in comparison to the other bands at the time, which is serious competition indeed. To wit:
Cinderella. . .
. . .and Vinnie Vincent Invasion:
See what I mean? He and the band just seemed like used-up gay prostitutes compared to other bands, which didn’t match the aggressiveness of the music. People didn’t know what to make of Vinnie. He did have some great songs on that first album, but it didn’t sell particularly well, and the over-the-top nature of his guitar playing left a bit to be desired. Even on a slow, bluesy song, he tried to cram as many notes as possible into the guitar solo, with hilarious results.
Great riff, great song, horrendous guitar solo. Even as a kid, when I was learning to play the guitar, I felt like if he could just settle down for thirty seconds and play tastefully—the way he did in Kiss—he’d really be onto something.
He seemed to have read my mind with his second and final album, All Systems Go. The songs were better, the sound quality of the album was better, and he played much more tastefully. One of the songs, Love Kills, was written for one of the Nightmare on Elm Street movies, and he had a couple of other hits from the album as well. My favorite song of his, “That Time of Year,” is on this album.
But if Vinnie was a hard sell for metal fans, he was an even more difficult one for the general public, whose metal tastes could only allow enough room for the likes of Def Leppard. People couldn’t really get past his strange looks and over-the-top style. Add all that to the fact that by 1990, metal was on its way out. Nirvana would put the final nail in its coffin in less than a year, and Vinnie and his compatriots would be relegated to the bargain bins of the record stores.
Like I said before, time has not been kind to 80′s metal, and Vinnie has become one of the de facto elder statesmen of the genre. But his story is far from over, and it gets super weird, so this seems like a good place for a cliffhanger.
When you’re visiting New York City and your friend sends you a text message that says, “Meet me at 23rd Street and 8th Avenue right now, if you’re game—I’ll show you the coolest place in the city,” the answer should always be a resounding yes. I texted back, “I’m in!” and walked the few blocks to the nearest subway station and headed down to the Chelsea neighborhood to meet her.
I wasn’t at all prepared for what she showed me. It was a former elevated railroad called the Highline. Built in the 1930′s, it had long since outlived its usefulness as trucks replaced trains as the prevalent form of freight transportation. As recently as a few short years ago, it was still a dilapidated eyesore that many people hoped would be demolished, but it was also a pipe dream for people who wanted to see it repaired and possibly used as a public space of some sort. Luckily, the latter idea won, and today the Highline is an elevated park that is now regarded as many peoples’ favorite place in all of New York City.
It’s designed with sustainable, native plants, and birds even have nests in the bushes and trees that line the edges of the busy pathway. Rents in buildings near the park have increased significantly. It’s a very romantic place, and there are lots of couples walking hand in hand and admiring the views of the city while remaining safely above the whirling traffic below. My friend, who has lived in NYC for two or three years now, was made aware of the park when she went on a first date with a guy who took her there. It was about this point that she had to bid me adieu, since she had an appointment to keep, but she told me where to go to see the best stretches of the park. It’s much more than just a walkway, and there are a number of wide areas to sit, or to watch people, or to look at the city, or even to busk on the cello.
This guy was playing Bach’s sixth Cello Suite, which is extraordinarily difficult. The Cello Suites get progressively more advanced as they go along, so the First (which is one of the most famous in all of classical music) is in the repertoire of almost every cellist, but the mark of a true professional is their ability to play the Suites in their entirety. This guy was definitely at the professional level, since not only was he playing the sixth Suite, he was playing it flawlessly. I had wandered in near the beginning of it, and sat across from him as unobtrusively as possible while I watched the remainder of his performance. When he finished playing for his audience of one, I said, “Bravo,” and walked over to patronize the arts by leaving a couple of bills in his cello case. He began to play another piece that I didn’t recognize, and I decided to continue walking and exploring some more.
A bit further along, I saw a small group of people doing what appeared to be acting. I love the Theatah, as those of you who have spent any kind of time on this blog already know, and I used to be a member (and eventually the leader) of a play-reading group, so I sauntered over to give them a listen. They were rehearsing Shakespeare—his style is unmistakable—and while I love his works, there are only a few that I’m familiar enough with to recognize by tuning in at a random moment. Luckily, this happened to be one of them, and I believe they were rehearsing a scene from the Scottish Play.
I stayed long enough to figure out which play they were performing, then clicked this picture and continued on my way, since even though they were rehearsing in a public place, it didn’t seem like they wanted to be closely watched. Plus, I wanted to explore more of the walkway and it was beginning to get dark outside. I came to a section that was closed off and in the process of being pressure-cleaned, possibly so that a movie scene could be filmed there.
From there I took the detour path, which led to a cute little restaurant area. I would have loved to stop and enjoy some food and wine—I’ll have to save that for my next trip!—but I was on a mission to get off the platform and explore more of the Chelsea neighborhood. Suddenly, I heard the sound of a harmonica, followed by a horrific metallic crash. I headed over to investigate.
It was indeed a harmonica player, and he looked as if he was looking for a specific place to sit. He was blowing on the harmonica and throwing metal chairs around. Hoo-ga hoo-ga hoo-ga hoo-ga CRASH—hoo-ga hoo-ga hoo-ga hoo-ga CRASH. The guy sitting there next to him, in the foreground of the picture, never so much as batted an eye.
I took a whole bunch more pictures after that, but the vast majority of them were too blurry to be worth sharing. Here’s ONE good one of a nearby building. . .
. . .and I even took a picture on the way down, but it’s extremely blurry. I’m only sharing it because I couldn’t find another picture of the yellowish-green elevator doors, and I wanted them to be represented too, so here you go.
This is only the second installment of the myriad of pictures and stories to come from my time in New York and Massachusetts. To be continued. . .
Finally, the phrase ‘the party’ can be used to describe more than just a bizarre Peter Sellers movie from the 1960′s (from whence the band Birdie Num Num got their name), in which he plays a man of South Asian descent who wanders into a party and, completely befuddled, makes comments about everything he sees there. Now—yes, NOW—it’s also the name of a stellar entry here on this very blog. I know; it’s an impressive title.
After a week of starting a new job and re-mixing GhostBand’s CD (more about that at some point; it’s a very interesting story), I somehow manage to have a free afternoon, so I’m taking the opportunity to do what I promised the other day, and beginning the laborious process of posting pictures from the New England trip and sharing some of the stories behind them, rather than creating one super-extendo, fifty-thousand-word behemoth of an entry.
Might as well start from the first night (although I think the whole chronological ‘thing’ is unnecessary and even somewhat boring) since this was my first time in New York, and this beautiful night seemed to set the tone for the rest of the trip.
This picture was taken at the home of our hosts, M and A, in Brooklyn. Their home is a lovely, sparse, tasteful two-story apartment near the Green-Wood Cemetery. They treated us like family in a million different ways, not least of which because A happens to be PolishCellist’s younger sister. They didn’t know me from Adam before I showed up in their car and on their doorstep, but they welcomed me with open arms and instantly included me in the fold. Both of them are engaging creative types (he’s a long-time Blue Man, musician and recording engineer, and she’s a freelance sound engineer and visual artist), so we had plenty in common to talk about.
They made us an excellent dinner of Caprese salad, grilled sausages, hot dogs, and bread. We ate on their patio until the rest of the guests began to arrive in the early evening, when the wine flowed, a fire flickered, and PolishCellist and I played an informal cello and accordion concert or the small but substantial group.
Here’s a shot of us playing, taken by PolishCellist’s youngest sister E, who lives in Brooklyn as well.
Around ten o’clock, we decided to give the neighbors a break (although I suspect they rather enjoyed the concert) and set about roasting marshmallows for s’mores (as well as drinking more wine) and continuing the conversations.
Eventually the party moved inside and out came the cameras, because the three sisters aren’t in the same place at the same time nearly as often as they’d like to be, so when they are it’s a pretty special occasion.
From left to right are A, PolishCellist, and E. Good genes certainly do run in their family, no?
Around two-thirty in the morning, we all went to bed. PolishCellist and I were awake a bit later than M and A were, since we’re both night owls and our body clocks were still on Pacific Time. She stayed upstairs and did some computer work, and I went downstairs and attempted unsuccessfully to sleep, while mentally going over all the places I wanted to see in the days to follow. I decided to explore as many various parts of town as possible—downtown Brooklyn, the Bridge, lower Manhattan, and Central Park (including Strawberry Fields and John Lennon’s home at the Dakota) were on my agenda for the first day—but I also decided to ‘randomize’ and play things by ear, and to remain open to possibilities and suggestions from my new friends.